Living Presence Response: A Description of the Ineffable?

This post was written before and subsequently posted after the previous one. This explains any anachronisms that appear in the text.

In my previous-but-one post, I started by describing how the reconstruction of a narrative by its very nature is at best an approximate endeavour. The description of a past reality in and of itself is in all probability a chimaera made of many parts pieced together as best as one can with the sensory and intellectual tools at one’s disposal. This is the main thrust of Donald Hoffman’s thesis that proposes the impossibility to see the world as it really is. He explains that we experience reality in terms of ‘fitness payoff’ and that this evolutionary pressure has shaped the way we perceive things in terms of what is the best way for us to survive in the world, not the most accurate description of it. So is a narrative a question of convenience and advantage?

Hoffman’s shift in the way the age-old problem of describing reality is approached is another example of how contemporary paradigms are shifting and being replaced at an ever-increasing rate. Thanks to an increasing knowledge base ever more accessible, the ability to bring together disparate areas of interest in one place has stimulated holistic approaches to almost every area of study. Crossing disciplines is essential if new insights are sought.

Alfred Gell’s revision of how artworks might function in society is another example of seeing things differently. His book, Art and Agency singles out precisely the mechanism by which viewers interact with art as though the latter were similar to living beings. Gell sees this in terms of agency, i.e. influencing viewers to behave as though they were engaging with something alive rather than inanimate. An artwork lies within a context, a social environment or art nexus, as van Eck calls it. Van Eck puts it rather well:

[Gell] considers objects of art not in terms of their formal or aesthetic value or appreciation within the culture that produced them. Neither does [he] consider them as signs, visual codes to be deciphered or symbolic communications. Instead, Gell defines art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Artworks thus considered are the equivalents of persons, more particularly social agents.

Gell identified one mechanism by which viewers can be influenced as technical virtuosity. This presents something made in a way that is hard to comprehend, functioning as a form of ideal or magic. The key is that this thing is to achieve what viewers try to do in other areas. This technical virtuosity can take many forms and is not confined to the skill of carving or painting.

This view of art as a performative agent is at first sight somewhat at odds with Richard Anderson’s view of skilfully encoding culturally significant meaning in a sensuous affecting medium. The skill element is common to both as is the significant meaning. However, in Anderson, the emphasis is placed on encoding meaning, whereas Gell’s hypothesis sees agency as the main function for the artwork.

Anderson in his anthropological idea is trying to bring together very disparate areas of creativity. In his book, Calliope’s Sisters his examples are taken from across very different societies some of which do not recognise the idea of art. Gell’s approach is more art-historical. Both Anderson and Gell are trying to identify art and its function in a way that does not fall into Western artistic paradigms of aesthetics and semiotics. Anderson’s hypothesis focuses on the semiotic content of an art object whereas Gell’s focuses on the mechanism by which an art object exerts influence. Gell’s idea is closer to Bayles and Orlando’s proposition that art changes the world in that he states that the agency of the object [or event] consolidates or reforms a world view in a social setting. This is very much the case in sacred contexts but also in the way art is perceived and responded to in secular white cube spaces to mention just one of many possible examples.

Gell borrows from Peircian semiotics and TAG analysis and replaces terms such as object, meaning, interpreter, sign, signifier etc with words that are more readily applicable to the arts.

  • Agency: the power to influence the viewer, this is mediated by the
  • Index: the material object that elicits responses
  • Prototype: the thing the index is representing.
  • Artist: the immediate cause or author of the existence of the index and its properties
  • Recipients: those affected by the work or intended to be by the index.

Semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism originally resided in the literary and anthropological domains. What this does is to slim down the complexities that arise when analysing work in terms of their function in a humanities context. Focus is placed on the visual arts aspect without losing contact with the humanities.  Most significantly, the term meaning is exchanged with prototype. This reminds me of the Jungian idea of archetypes. But rather than presenting as a Platonic overarching concept, the prototype can be specific to the index in question.

Prototype is an important departure from meaning because it enables the representation of something ineffable. The living presence of the object is enhanced by, in many cases dependent on, its social context. So the art object becomes the explanation of the ineffable rather than ‘the problem to be explained’. 1 Because of the social nexus, in appropriately reinforcing circumstances, the effect becomes proofed against rational explanation. A response mechanism is created that is emotional and volitional rather than rational and cognitive.

These taxonomies are useful when attempting to disentangle relationships and the role of each player in the social nexus in which they are enmeshed. This system of analysis may be a helpful tool in confirming putative or identifying actual causal relationships between the art object its social, anthropological and psychological effects. This form of analysis has been used primarily in art historical context but I can see how I can apply it to tease out aims and objectives from intentions in artistic practice.

I see aims and objectives as analytical descriptions of process. They are the functional and purposeful surface ideas that have to be worked out, arrived at and articulated through cognitive processes. Intentions on the other hand are more deeply rooted. They lie beneath reason, often unrevealed or tacit. To find one’s intention is like holding one’s beating heart. It can be dangerous or bring well being, we often keep intentions well hidden inside the mind; somewhere deep in the brain. Intentions are tinder waiting to be lit. They can give light and warmth or burn everything to ashes.

  1. Van Eck,[]

Research Statement: Taking Another Direction


My Research Statement started clearly but tailed off towards an uncertain ending. I had the thread, subject knowledge and so on but crucially what I was thinking was only of slight relevance to contemporary art. I had been dealing with histories of knowledge and putting together a viewpoint that although very interesting to my mind, it was not pertinent to contemporary art and did not contribute to my practice, neither methodologically nor theoretically: I just found it interesting. 

I had written around two-and-a-half thousand words when the recurring feeling of dread that asks, where is all this going, became too strong to ignore. I had barely started to look at contemporary artist that might be relevant to the paper. I looked at some suggestion Gareth had given me. Most were examples that were nothing close to what I was talking about, but you only need one, and one did stand out ticking all the boxes. I found that William Latham has been working in a similar way to me for years. He has developed an evolutionary art with computers, I have done it with sculpture. I looked up some references I was familiar with to do with cell automation, a bit about AI and found these things fitted into the contexts I had thought of previously: the Cambrian explosion and the Early Bronze Age. 

I am excited in that the hypothesis I am now proposing brings together art, biology, anthropology/archaeology, the digital environment, virtual worlds, philosophy and the future. The idea is not fully fleshed out yet but it is on its way and would not have been possible had I not started the way I did. The idea came a few days ago as a need to find a way of talking about very different artistic processes in the same terms. I have found that despite all the talk of breaking down barriers, merging and blurring the boundaries, art has become too disparate and dispersed. A fog of taxonomies, political stances, power plays creates in me an inability to talk about things cohesively and clearly without having to ignore the unique characteristics of each practice or making crass generalisations. This is not an attempt to judge or weigh one art form against another. On the contrary, it is a way of critically looking at each practice and identifying what makes it unique without recourse to subjectivity. I know that this is a bold claim and it may unravel as I write the paper but it is an interesting exercise. It is probably just another supporting piece of thinking. Many attempts have been made to do this since structuralist, post-structuralist and subsequent theories. I think Wittgenstein wrote something along these lines but it was based on a philosophical logic form that is not easy to understand.

And finally, it is directly relevant to me by helping to re-contextualise my practice in the contemporary environment. I think it could be one way of universally thinking or rethinking about process, categories, art, anything that involves change, which is virtually everything. 

Note to self: writing this down is a way of telling myself to continue writing, researching and composing ideas.


What is the Character of a Myth?


Theriomorph. fired clay, height 94 mm

I have been thinking for some time about the fact that mythical protagonists are almost always animal, human or both. At times, natural phenomena may come together to give rise to cyclopean offspring as in early Greek mythology or Polynesian tales. These unions tend to occur at the beginning of time after which, almost invariably the main characters behave in a human-like fashion whatever they might be. Much has been written about what stands for what and how, whether crossing between the spiritual and real world, creating the world or giving rise to what takes place in ordinary life. However, what about the mechanisms? These are often left to the explanation, the reading of the myth, the hermeneutics of scholars. Take the garden of Eden for instance, it has been given many meanings, from a literal reading of the Genesis text to cultural transitioning to psychoanalytical interpretations. Whatever the case might be, it is difficult to get away from focusing on the characterisation of ideas through theriomorphism or anthropomorphism.

But what if I were to focus, not on characters but mechanisms? Even in Big History, a contemporary explanation – some would say a modern myth – for how the world came to be and how life emerged on this planet, we are compelled to look at the ancestral fossil record and visualise evolution as a series of animal and plant transformations. But there are deeper principles at work than, as in this case, hyperlapses from one body form to another. I feel that to solely concentrate on characterisation might be somewhat trite and predictable; what if I were to explore the mechanisms that drive myths? What if I were to create works that act as representations, metaphors, analogies or some other trope of these mechanisms? This would free me from the usual narratives, from having to contextualise in a forced manner, from fixing the ideas in a temporal locus. These ideas are timeless, without boundaries; they are not confined to any given period. By releasing my thinking from structuralist or post-structuralist constraints, from period context, from contemporary fashions, the relevance of the ideas embodied in myths might become self-evidently natural rather than contrivance. 

This is not an easy thing to do. It is a way of creating an alchemical admixture of ideas and material form: I hope not too obscure. I shall not speak of these mechanism yet. I need to think more clearly, allowing the idea to walk hand in hand with the making: the concept with the affect and aesthetic.